How many movies can you think of that feature a protagonist who takes an active stance against prohibition along with a positive depiction of the right to keep and bear arms? There are a few, one excellent recent film from that category being Legends of the Fall. Throw in a graphic description of the cruelty and futility of a solely punishment based penal system and the field shrinks even further. If you want to see Jimmy Stewart in one of his most unusual but inspiring roles then Carbine Williams is the only answer that comes to my mind.
Carbine Williams is the story of the inventor of the M1 carbine. Its dialog uses phrases such as “natural right” and “rugged individualism.” Directed by Richard Thorpe, MGM made this gem in 1952. In addition to Jimmy Stewart as Marsh “Carbine” Williams it stars Jean Hagen as his wife Maggie and Wendell Corey as his warden and best friend: Capt. Peoples. It also features James Arness, Leif Erickson and Rhys Williams in early screen roles performing smaller parts.
Carbine Williams’ story elements include depictions of the importance of family, romantic love, friendship, invention and ambition. Most of the movie takes place in a prison setting and shows how Marsh Williams succeeds in life against fairly stiff odds.
The story opens with Marsh returning from the Navy, which he joined at a very young age. He and his father do not see eye to eye on what Marsh’s priorities ought now to be. Marsh wants to marry and set up his own household, but his father wants him to work for him for several years. As long as Marsh goes his own way his father will withhold Marsh’s share of the family land. Marsh chooses to pursue his own plans.
After the wedding, he and Maggie (Jean Hagen), his childhood sweetheart, start their journey together. Marsh has a poorly paying job with a railroad where he meets people who operate a “still.” Operating a moonshine distillery pays much better than the railroad and Marsh knows the difference between a “natural right and a legal right.” This goes on for a while without Maggie suspecting until a federal revenue agent becomes involved in the killing of one of Marsh’s associates. Later this same federal is killed in a raid on Marsh’s “still.” This leads to a murder trial and twist of injustice on which the tale turns.
Carbine Williams is a rare film. Not only does it show the futility of prohibition, the potential nobility of firearms, the inspiring nature of invention and the devotion of love and friendship, but it tells its story by highlighting how even very independent “rugged individualists” can and do help each other to fulfill their potentials. If you have an opportunity to see this movie, don’t miss it.